Thursday, July 6, 2017

My Cousin Rachel / Daphne du Maurier's take on the sinister power of sex

Daphne du Maurier
New York, 1947

My Cousin Rachel: Daphne du Maurier's take on the sinister power of sex


Du Maurier’s novel is a tightly plotted, sinuous and undeniably feral piece of work that puts power in the hands of women
Julie Myerson
Saturday 17 June 2017 12.00 BST


A
t first sight, the scene could not be more romantic. Philip Ashley, on the verge of coming into his inheritance, intends, in just a few hours, to tip the lot – vast Cornish estate, family jewels and his entire fortune – into the lap of his dead cousin’s widow Rachel, the older woman with whom he is besotted. He takes a euphoric late-night dip in the sea and strides back to the house where – though he does not know it yet – she is about to make him the happiest man alive. As he makes his way through the eerily moonlit woods and chooses the path which will lead him to his lover (and, it turns out, a lot more besides), an odour reaches his nostrils – a “rank vixen smell” which for a moment or two seems to stop him in his tracks.

Rank vixen smell.
I wonder if I even noticed these three brooding little words when I first read My Cousin Rachel as a teenager. Now though, rather like its protagonist, I am also stopped in my tracks. In fact, revisiting this fantastically well-wrought novel of suspicions and betrayals some four decades later – and watching Roger Michell’s startlingly honest new film, starring Rachel Weisz – they might as well be lit in blazing neon. I doubt there’s a phrase in the entire novel which better sums up what Daphne du Maurier is up to.

Did she, didn’t she? Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin in My Cousin Rachel, directed by Roger Michell. Photograph: © Fox Searchlight Pictures/Entertainment Pictures/Alamy


In some ways it is an age-old story, albeit with a trademark Du Maurier twist: sexually inexperienced 25-year-old becomes infatuated with someone 10 years older. Having already lost his heart, he is then (very willingly) initiated into sex, assuming all the time that marriage, or at least everlasting love, is on the cards. But no, he wakes next morning – ecstatic and feeling that “everything in life was now resolved” – to discover that the object of his affections is cool and distant, acting as if nothing much has happened.
Nothing new about this; it is after all a position in which women have found themselves for centuries. Only here Du Maurier artfully turns the tables, handing the power and control to the woman. The passionate tryst which Philip took to imply betrothal turns out, for his more experienced and worldly lover, to have been no more than friendship-with-benefits.
And though My Cousin Rachel – written in 1951 when Du Maurier was, arguably, at the height of her confidence and powers – might appear to be a simple did-she-didn’t-she thriller about Cornish estates and poisonings, it is absolutely and inescapably a novel about sex. Most specifically female sexuality: its ambiguity, its mystery and its potentially fatal – as perceived by men – power.

‘Danger, subterfuge and the possibility of falling’: Claflin and Weisz in the 2017 film.
Photograph: Allstar/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Indeed, the sinister, devouring threat of the female – in the shape of black widow Rachel, who might as well be a spider for the patient way in which she watches and weaves and waits – is present almost from the first chapter. When he is orphaned as a baby, Philip is adopted by his kindly older cousin Ambrose. The household is a gruff male bastion – which has so far successfully protected itself in every possible way from the opposite sex. Even the servants and the dogs are male. So when “crusty cynical woman-hater” Ambrose writes home from Florence to say that he is to be married, the news is greeted with shock and bafflement – and a certain amount of resentment from his young charge. How could any female have managed to storm his battlements?
Rank vixen smell, indeed.
And when Ambrose dies in mysterious circumstances and we learn that the widow is on her way to see Philip, the odour only intensifies. His suspicions about his cousin’s death may be well-founded but they are also, you sense, at least partly driven by fear of this particular unknown. For here is a young man who has never been in close proximity with a woman. “It was a queer sensation having a woman in the pew beside me,” he says of his first outing to church with Rachel.


The queer sensation is to prove ever more intoxicating. In love with the sheer novelty of femaleness, Philip is easy prey – and Rachel does not hesitate to take advantage. Allowing him to glimpse her in various states of undress (pinning up her hair, leaving the door of her boudoir ajar while she dresses, putting flowers about the house), she employs her full arsenal. And Philip is naturally bewitched. “I think she had no knowledge what it did to me,” he declares with touching yet preposterous innocence, remarking on the way that she touches his head or his shoulder in passing.
Watching Rachel slowly land Philip is one of the chief pleasures of the novel – and Du Maurier makes sure it is done with a rhythm and honesty and even humour which cannot help but make us complicit. For although the story, tightly plotted with small clues slipping out here and there, encourages us to fear for Philip, we cannot help it: we want Rachel to have him.


In fact, and this is true of much of Du Maurier’s work, subtle humour is key. Without it, Rachel would be a much less interestingly complex and ambiguous character. With her eyes full of a “solemnity” which “spelt mischief”, we can’t help but warm to her. And neither can Philip, who is quick to forget that he ever suspected her of anything.
Back in 1975, when I first checked the book out of Nottingham Central Library in its polythene-covered yellow Gollancz jacket and read it in my nylon-quilted single bed, I think I believed Philip – 10 years older than I was, just as Rachel is another 10 years older than he is – to be a grown-up. I believed every word he said and I fell in love with Rachel through his eyes.

But I certainly feared for him as well. My strongest memories of the novel are of treading its pages alongside him – hanging on every word of this most plausibly reliable narrator, of being frightened and drawn in equal measure by those shadowy corridors and candlelit boudoirs, the ominous stashes of laburnum seeds and, most memorably of all, the rickety bridge strung up high over a sunken Cornish garden.
Danger, subterfuge and the possibility of falling. At 15, I was still an awkward few years away from kissing my first boy and Rachel’s world – a world of dizzy sexual heights – seemed quite literally frightening. “Was Rachel innocent or was she guilty?” wonders Philip in chapter one. Back then, suspecting that if you could seduce a man this effortlessly then you could also, surely, poison him, I don’t think I was in any doubt: she was guilty.



But what a difference four decades make.

One of the most likeable aspects of Michell’s wonderfully crunchy new film is that, though it leaves itself open to either verdict, still it tilts things – rightly I think – very slightly in Rachel’s favour. Though he sticks almost word-for-word to the plot, there are some nice new touches. An extra, faintly comical sex scene, only barely implied in the book, makes a satisfying kind of sense. There is also a strong suggestion that Rachel’s slippery friend Rainaldi, far from being some kind of a Machiavellian paramour (something which always felt troubling in the book) is in fact homosexual. Which again makes total sense. In fact, both additions make Rachel’s world seem more rather than less complicated – and also emotionally honest. Du Maurier would approve.
Rachel is a woman who, at 35, has been married at least twice and clearly had other love affairs. She has miscarried a child – something which both book and film hint has taken an emotional toll. It is also strongly implied that she has suffered violence at the hands of more than one man. There have been hands at her throat, we are told. Rachel is a woman who has felt shame and fear as well as loss.
With her small hands – repeatedly described – and small narrow face, she is an undeniably exotic presence, but a vulnerable one, too. It is hard not to feel – and Du Maurier leaves plenty of room for such an interpretation – that it is in part her very vulnerability that makes her so terrifying to men.

It is easy to forget that the novel begins with a description not of love or sex, but of death. As Ambrose forces seven-year-old Philip to look at a body swinging from a Cornish gibbet, dead for four weeks, its “swollen limbs like pulpy paper”, he invites his young charge to be sick behind the hedge if necessary “and remember I have not seen you”. Witnessed or not, Philip barely makes it to the hedge.
Later, on his brief trip to Florence to attempt to rescue Ambrose, Philip encounters a young female beggar with an “ageless, haunting” face – a person who seems to have “contemplated life so long it had become indifferent to her”. The beggar’s face haunts the novel and seems in some way to be linked to the image of the corpse on the gibbet. I remember that this image troubled me as a teenager, and it is all credit to this most superlative of writers that even now all these years later, contemplating this tightly plotted, sinuous and undeniably feral piece of work, I am still trying to decide what I feel about it.
 Julie Myerson’s latest novel is The Stopped Heart (Vintage). My Cousin Rachel is on general release.

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